Flimflam and Impatience

Those with self-confidence rule the world. They seem to know what they’re doing, even if they don’t. That’s the trick. Be bold. Be decisive – even if your decisions are disastrous. That can be handled easily. Say that your critics are fools, or at least timid. Things will work out wonderfully, eventually. No one has any vision these days – you do. Geniuses have always been misunderstood. Everyone knows that – and keep it up. Fake it. No one will know. They’ll be in awe, or assume they should be in awe, because everyone else seems to be in awe. And then at some point you can actually do the job.

That’s the theory. That’s what’s in most self-help books, although it’s not put quite that cynically. There the idea is to believe in yourself – to think positively – and that’s a good thing – but knowing your limits is also a good thing. There’s theory and then there’s reality. Faking it is still faking it, and sometimes you get caught:

A federal appeals panel on Thursday unanimously rejected President Trump’s bid to reinstate his ban on travel into the United States from seven largely Muslim nations, a sweeping rebuke of the administration’s claim that the courts have no role as a check on the president.

It seems that being bold has its limits:

The three-judge panel, suggesting that the ban did not advance national security, said the administration had shown “no evidence” that anyone from the seven nations – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – had committed terrorist acts in the United States.

The ruling also rejected Mr. Trump’s claim that courts are powerless to review a president’s national security assessments. Judges have a crucial role to play in a constitutional democracy, the court said.

“It is beyond question,” the decision said, “that the federal judiciary retains the authority to adjudicate constitutional challenges to executive action.”

Perhaps no one has any vision these days, but there is the Constitution:

The decision was handed down by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco. It upheld a ruling last Friday by a federal district judge, James L. Robart, who blocked key parts of the travel ban, allowing thousands of foreigners to enter the country.

The appeals court acknowledged that Mr. Trump was owed deference on his immigration and national security policies. But it said he was claiming something more – that “national security concerns are unreviewable, even if those actions potentially contravene constitutional rights and protections.”

That’s a bold claim, and one that’s not allowed in our system, but boys will be boys and the bold will always be bold:

Within minutes of the ruling, Mr. Trump angrily vowed to fight it, presumably in an appeal to the Supreme Court.

“SEE YOU IN COURT. THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter.

The bold always write in ALL CAPS of course, but that really doesn’t help:

At the White House, the president told reporters that the ruling was “a political decision” and predicted that his administration would win an appeal “in my opinion, very easily.” He said he had not yet conferred with his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, on the matter.

There are two things here. How is this political? Is Donald Trump saying that the court in question was out to get him, to make him look bad? They made a legal argument. That’s not a legal counterargument. That’s paranoia – and then, secondly, perhaps he really should talk to a lawyer or two – Jeff Sessions would be a start – and review the decision. What is the best way to win this thing now? A strategy would be nice, even if careful strategies are not bold. They’re only useful.

Some might see Trump’s response as a bit pathetic, but the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza sees this:

To Trump, it was an open-and-shut case: He was the president. The president is tasked with keeping the country safe. This ban would keep the country safe.

The appeals court didn’t see it that way, leaving Trump with the very real possibility that even an appeal to the Supreme Court will change nothing. Remember that the Supreme Court is divided between four more-liberal justices and four more-conservative ones. The ninth seat is open as a result of the death of Antonin Scalia and the blockade Republicans put up on then-President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. Trump court nominee Neil Gorsuch is in the very early stages of the process and wouldn’t be seated – even if he is eventually confirmed – in time to break the tie.

And a tie would mean the ruling of the appeals court would hold – and Trump’s travel ban would be no more.

It seems that there are distressing limits to boldness:

That’s a big deal for a man who promised during the 2016 campaign that he could change everything that people hated about Washington, bringing his business savvy to its bloated bureaucracy. What Trump is learning – or should learn – from this latest court ruling is that the government isn’t like a business in one critical way: There are checks and balances built into the system. The judiciary is not something he can control or cajole. He is, quite literally, not the boss of the federal court system.

That’s something you can’t fake away:

His initial reaction was, in a word, Trumpian. But tweets – even those in all caps – don’t change the separation of power in our system of government, a fact that Trump is being forced to acknowledge with his presidency less than three weeks old.

Trump may be being forced to acknowledge that, maybe. He could also defy the courts and order the ban to continue, and be found in contempt of court, and laugh at that. What is the court going to do, arrest him? On the other hand, he did swear to uphold and defend the Constitution, and that would be an impeachable offense. He would be violating his oath of office, but what is a Republican Congress going to do, impeach him? Not this Congress, not these guys – so he could be bold. All he would have to do is declare the courts and Congress to be totally useless, in an executive order of course. That would be interesting.

That seems unlikely. He may be learning, but Josh Marshall sees a pattern here:

Going into the Trump presidency the President and congressional Republicans promised an ambitious legislative agenda. And fast. At one point Paul Ryan suggested that Obamacare repeal and Medicare phase-out might start on inauguration day. In any case, few needed to be convinced. Republicans had unified control of the federal government and almost a decade of pent-up appetite for dramatic change – Obamacare repeal, corporate tax reform, a major income tax cut, repeal of Dodd-Frank, possibly privatization of major social insurance programs like Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and more. And yet less than a month in, progress on Capitol Hill has slowed dramatically. President Trump meanwhile seems almost entirely focused on a steady stream of executive orders. These two developments are not unrelated. It looks very much like President Trump has found his presidential comfort-zone: rule by decree.

That’s bold, but kind of loopy:

The American system doesn’t work by presidential decrees. Congress and the courts can cleave back these actions. With Congress suppliant, the courts are showing that most clearly with his immigration executive order, to Trump’s great displeasure. But in other cases the executive orders are more like Potemkin decrees, vague though legalistic proclamations which have limited impact or meaning or expressing changes that other administrations would simply do rather than grandly announce through what sometimes amount to proclamatory press releases.

As usual with Trump, the upshot is a mix of authoritarian tendencies on the one hand and flimflam and impatience on the other.

And it’s the flimflam that’s the problem:

Presidential power operates by Presidents mobilizing popular support to push legislation through Congress. This requires both popularity and even for a popular president both patience and an acumen for deal-making. For all his claims to the contrary, Trump not only lacks the first two. He lacks the third as well…

It would be easy enough to whip up a breathless report that the US has somehow already been converted to presidential, authoritarian rule. But that is clearly not the case – the courts are making that clear enough for all Trump’s huffing and puffing and threats to blow their courthouses down. But this is his comfort zone and this looks like the direction of his presidency. Even when legislation is there for the passing, he lacks the focus, interest or skills to get it passed. He is low attention and low energy. Hastily drawn up executive orders, some inconsequential and some unconstitutional, are likely to be the order of the day, only with the Oval Office photo ops with toadies and CEO supplicants thrown in.

In other words, it is not a poor man’s but a lazy man’s authoritarianism. He is by nature a strongman but lacks the focus or energy to get what he wants in a system which, at least for now, does not allow it.

But that could change:

Threats against more than one judge involved in legal challenges to President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration have prompted federal and local law enforcement agencies to temporarily increase security protection for some of them, according to law enforcement officials…

The threats come as Trump continues his verbal criticisms of judges – something that has drawn concern from former law enforcement officials and others who fear that public officials should not target a specific judge, and instead base their criticism more broadly on a court’s ruling.

Security experts say that while Trump’s comments were clearly not meant to put the judges’ safety at risk, in general, public officials should avoid comments against a specific judge so as not to spur an unhappy litigant.

Don’t mention their names because they could end up dead, or not:

Leonard Leo, an adviser to Trump on the Supreme Court, says it is a “huge stretch” to equate the criticisms that President Trump has made with a threat to judicial security.

“President Trump is not threatening a judge, and he’s not encouraging any form of lawlessness,” Leo said. “What he is doing is criticizing a judge for what he believes to be a failure to follow the law properly.”

No he isn’t:

On Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer was asked whether Trump regrets his criticism.

“He has no regrets,” Spicer said.

Trump’s criticisms were based first on Judge James L. Robart, who halted the executive order pending appeal. Trump referred to him as a “so-called” judge.

Later he suggested that Robart’s ruling could put the country in peril.

“Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!”

The bad should be punished, shouldn’t they? Rile up “the people” and someone will take care of those bad people.

Donald Trump is playing with fire here. He is self-confident and bold and decisive, but that’s maybe that’s just another name for flimflam and impatience, and that plays out in other ways:

According to a report Thursday from Reuters, when Russian President Vladimir Putin brought up the 2010 New START treaty on a recent call with Trump, the American president had to ask his aides what the treaty was. He then expressed doubts to Putin about extending the treaty, according to the report, and called it a bad deal.

Say every previous deal is a bad deal. Have supreme self-confidence in your own deal-making genius – you wrote the book on that, a bestseller. That’s also bold and decisive, and then there’s reality:

“The Reuters report suggests that he’s extremely ill-informed about the most serious foreign policy, national security issues a president needs to know,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonpartisan organization focused on arms control policy. “His cluelessness is dangerous in the sense that if he doesn’t understand the risks of nuclear weapons and commonsense measures to reduce the risks, he is, and the nation is, vulnerable to missteps.”

According to Reuters, during Trump’s first call with Putin as president on January 28, Trump denounced New START as a bad deal for the United States and had to “ask his aides in an aside what the treaty was.”

Faking it masterfully is cool, but this isn’t cool:

The treaty, negotiated by President Barack Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, was ratified by the US Senate by a vote of 71 to 26. Kimball says that’s because it was seen as a key step toward reducing both nations’ deployed nuclear stockpiles and included monitoring of both sides. “So in a time of tension with Russia,” he says, “this provides transparency and predictability, and it means that neither side can vastly increase their nuclear arsenals, which were already far larger than any reasonable measure would suggest they need to be.”

Kimball adds that the opposition to the treaty when it was signed in 2010 seemed to revolve around the perception that the deal allowed Russia to deploy nuclear weapons at a greater rate than the United States and wouldn’t allow the United States to modernize its nuclear arsenal. He points out that a Pentagon review of the US nuclear arsenal found that the country could further reduce its stockpile by up to one-third without affecting US nuclear capability, so the idea that nuclear capability is somehow hampered by New START is not accurate.

Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a nuclear arms reduction advocacy organization, says in an email that Trump’s opposition to the deal seems to be political and could ultimately damage US national interests.

“The treaty had the overwhelming support of America’s military, intelligence, and national security leaders,” Cirincione says.

Yeah, well, what do they know? No one has any vision these days, but there is a problem here:

Kimball says the Reuters report suggests that Trump is not prepared to handle the complexities of nuclear policy. “This is the guy who now has a military officer shadowing him everywhere he goes,” he says, “carrying a 45-pound black briefcase that can be used by the president to transmit the launch codes to strategic command in Omaha to launch as many as 900 nuclear warheads in under 10 minutes, and no one has to agree with Mr. Trump about doing that. He has an incredibly awesome, almost sole authority to launch these weapons. He holds the fate of the planet in his hands, or in the briefcase that follows him everywhere, and this report today, it’s incredibly disturbing because it suggests that he is clueless about this important nuclear risk reduction agreement and does not have a clear strategy for further reduce risks with Russia and other countries.”

Flimflam and impatience are more dangerous than curious here, and Slate’s Fred Kaplan points out a structural problem:

Three weeks into his presidency, Trump has not nominated any second-tier officials – the deputy, under, and assistant secretaries – in a major department. Whatever the merits of his various Cabinet secretaries, they are heading empty shells.

Yes, Secretary of Defense James Mattis flew to Asia to assure his counterparts in South Korea and Japan that America’s commitment to their defense is rock solid (despite some of Trump’s remarks to the contrary). Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reinforced that message with phone calls himself.

But then what? Traditionally, the appropriate underlings – the undersecretary of state for political affairs, the assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs, and various others – would follow up, in phone calls and face-to-face meetings, to discuss specific issues, allay specific concerns, reshape imperfect accords, untangle some misunderstandings. Asian allies in particular require almost daily hand-holding.

But none of this can happen, because there are no officials who can do it. Nor can the Trump administration do much to form new policies, assess new trends, or address new threats. Usually, the National Security Council’s Deputies Committee does the staff work – sometimes the initial analysis – on these sorts of issues. But it can’t be done now… There are acting deputy and undersecretaries, but they’re holdovers from the Obama administration, and so, they can’t pretend – or be trusted – to speak for the new crowd.

And that makes for some odd phone calls:

With nearly every phone call to a foreign head-of-state comes a tantrum, a faux pas, or at very least a storm of confusion that heightens tensions or foments new uncertainties. Usually, before presidents call a head of state, they’re briefed on the major issues concerning that country, the positions held by both sides, perhaps some personal peculiarities. For heads of particularly important countries, they’re given briefing folders to read in advance. Trump reads no such folders and hears no such briefings, except sometimes an informal point or two, delivered not by a State Department official, but by his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who, in some cases, has his own agenda and, in others, has little to say.

Several foreign leaders have shaken their heads in wonder at these phone calls, so hostile or, in any case, bewildering. French President François Hollande told aides that all that Trump seemed to care about was the money that America spends on the rest of the world. Trump famously screamed at Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over a prior deal for the United States to receive 1,200 refugees – in part because Trump didn’t know about the deal and, on a broader level, had no knowledge of the critical role that Australia plays in Asian security or in the global U.S. intelligence network.

And then there was the Putin call:

Russian President Vladimir Putin asked about extending the Obama-era New START nuclear-arms-reduction treaty, Trump scoffed at the treaty as a bad deal that gives Moscow an advantage – in part because he was unfamiliar with the treaty, which in fact requires both sides to cut their nuclear arsenals to equal levels and which, meanwhile, gives the United States unprecedented rights of inspection.

Our guy, who was masterfully faking it, didn’t seem to know that, nor could he have known that:

It’s not clear whether Trump would have wanted a State Department briefing on these subjects, had one of his own people been available to give it. But he had no such people, and there were no briefings.

Kaplan is not impressed:

Trump is right about one thing: The world is a mess. He doesn’t seem to realize the extent to which his words and actions – his hostile messages, mixed messages, and sometimes the absence of a message where there needs to be one – are making it messier. He knows almost nothing about foreign policy. He has no foreign-policy apparatus, only a few Cabinet secretaries and some White House advisers, who have little experience running federal bureaucracies and who disagree on basic premises. In short, he has no foreign policy, but only a string of clichés about “America First” and “winning,” which don’t translate into substantive ideas or prescriptions for action. And he seems blithely unaware that he’s spinning aimlessly.

But he is bold and superbly self-confident. That’s awesome, or was awesome to just enough voters in just the right places last November. Those with self-confidence do rule the world.

Maybe they shouldn’t. That’s just another name for flimflam and impatience. Congress won’t say that now – he’s their guy, for better or worse – but there are still the courts, for now. Someone has to say that.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Flimflam and Impatience

  1. busyk says:

    This is terrifying. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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